If someone comes up to you and suggests that South Korean auteur Kim Ki-Duk’s thoroughly reprehensible, boring, and utterly botched Pieta is actually a piece of art or, even worse, entertaining, never consider this person your friend. Give them another shot, but ask quite nicely and diplomatically that they seek help. Pieta isn’t boundary pushing or artful. It’s idiotic, hateful, amateurish garbage. It’s a miserable movie designed solely for people who gravitate towards misery, but it isn’t even interesting in that respect. In-expletive-explicably the winner of numerous awards at Venice last year (on a jury headed by Michael Mann, who has clearly lost his mind or was stuck in an insane asylum for the voting), there’s no reason a film this awful should have ever gotten the attention it’s been receiving.
Gang-Do (Lee Jeong-jin) is a loan shark enforcer who doles out brutality and mutilation on behalf of his employers who want to claim insurance money when customers don’t pay up. One day, a woman appears at the door of his apartment and refuses to leave him alone, often bearing food and just barging in to start cleaning. The woman, Mi-Son (Jo Min-soo), claims to be the young man’s mother despite looking almost deceptively too young to be true. There’s a push and pull between them as the woman observes and stays close to her supposed son, and Gang-Do becomes more emotionally invested as his new matriarchal figure is potentially placed in harm’s way by one of the people he’s left bloodied and crippled along the way.
The actors aren’t the problem here, but since they’re taking their marching orders from a pretentious director who has no conceivable clue what kind of movie he wants to make they can’t be entirely faulted for being a bit flat at times. The problem begins and ends with Ki-Duk (3 Iron, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring) who has never been worse in his vastly over praised career. Naming his film after the Italian word for pity and desperately trying to craft a narrative asking what would happen if the Virgin Mary gave birth to Satan rather that Jesus (the title also refers to a similar style of painting used by Van Gogh and Michelangelo, both of whom I feel bad about name checking in this review), Ki-Duk keeps piling on unnecessary, ugly, and cynical elements seemingly without rhyme, reason, or eyes and ears for both tone and art.
Filmed through what appears to be cheesecloth in a style that makes Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon region look even more run down and dusty than it already is, Pieta can be pithily dismissed as a grafting of Oldboy onto Killing Them Softly and Stop or My Mom Will Shoot, and it’s equally every bit as awful as that sounds and somehow even worse. The film’s jaw droopingly leadened Oedipal elements are constantly and deafeningly crashing against an obvious economic subtext. They never fit together for a second thanks to a complete disregard for creating any sort of way to transition between the two elements.
It’s painfully obvious that Ki-Duk revels in making his film as misanthropic as possible. His disdain for his country’s capitalist leanings should make for interesting subtext in the right hands, but he prefers to imbue his film with a sense of torture in both practice and execution. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a single likeable character in the film (save for one of Gang-Do’s victims, a musician that throws his potential assaulter a curveball), but Ki-Duk shows nothing but disdain for those he’s filming. It’s an impossible task that he simply can’t pull off because his heart is too full of hate and rage that he outclasses himself. There’s no way for him to tell these two stories at once, leading to scenes that are either cribbed directly from vastly better South Korean filmmakers or filmed with such disregard for any sort of technique that it feels like a work of a high school film student rather than that of someone with a 25 year career. Every rote beat of this story has been done before, but since he has a “mother” giving her son handjobs (not to mention the rape, whoops, spoilers) and a lead character that forces people to break their own legs, he must think his “transgressive” blood and semen stained approach is something new. It’s not. It’s been done before, and so rarely this poorly.
I’m not against dark stories. I’m against dark stories with muddled messages that seem to be getting off more on the misery of a given situation rather than the actual message. There’s nothing bracing or thoughtful about it. The craft it takes to convey such delicate massages is missing entirely. That’s Pieta in a nutshell: a geek show with aspirations to The Louvre. It’s so atrocious just writing this review made me want to take a shower. I feel like I shall right now. I’ve wallowed in false, forced misery for long enough.